Beyond the Normal Range

More than a decade ago, rapt New York theatergoers listened to four Jews in a room bitching. That was the opening song -- "Four Jews in a Room Bitching" -- of a one-act musical as articulate and neurotic and hysterical as its characters. What they bitched about in composer William Finn's and director James Lapine's 1981 March of the Falsettos was love. They bitched about what happens to it, and to the family involved, when relationships -- and sexual preferences -- change. In 1990 the AIDS crisis compelled Finn and Lapine to continue the family saga; that one-act musical, Falsettoland, didn't leave as much time for bitching because, as one song chillingly understates it, "Something Bad is Happening."

Though both one-acts stood terrifically on their own -- March of the Falsettos for its comic angst, Falsettoland for its devastating pathos -- the creators had the insight to combine them. (Finn had composed an even earlier one-act musical account of the family, In Trousers, which documents the lead character's coming out.) So powerfully and naturally do the pre-AIDS and present-day one-acts merge together that the fused full-length musical, Falsettos, won Tony Awards in 1992 for Best Score and Best Book.

The holiday season, as a time to reflect, couldn't be more a fitting moment to experience Falsettos (at Jones Hall through December 26). The first Broadway musical to deal with AIDS, the show has universal appeal and relevance: A father tells his son to "sing for yourself kid, as you march along. A man, kid, you'll be, kid, whatever the song"; a woman struggles to deal with the fact that "life is never what you planned. Life is moments you can't understand."

Another reason to see the show is its distinctive music. Finn is often rightfully hailed as creative torchbearer for Stephen Sondheim; his works are distinguished by clipped lyrics that are clever and passionate and ambivalent, fragmentary melodies that stop short and return and overlap, compositional eclecticism that encompasses ballads and operetta and showstoppers.

Falsettos begins in 1979 as Marvin leaves his wife and young son for a male lover, the pretty but promiscuous Whizzer. Marvin insists, though, that he wants a tight-knit family, and he makes them interact: "We all eat as one. Wife, friend and son." His wife, Trina, marries Marvin's ex-psychiatrist, Mendel, and the family is extended once more. All of this is hard for precocious son Jason to deal with: "My father's a homo. My mother's not thrilled at all." By the end of Act One, Marvin, who wants it all, ends up alone, marching to his own beat.

Act Two takes place in 1981. Marvin is back with Whizzer. Jason, now 13 and preparing for religious manhood, has godparents: Dr. Charlotte and her caterer lover, Cordelia, who's making "nouvelle bar-mitzvah cuisine" for the occasion. ("You save lives," Cordelia says, "and I save chicken fat.")

For a little while, the characters are as carefree as their psychoses permit them to be: "We're watching Jason play baseball," the adults root from the bleachers. "We're watching Jewish boys who cannot play baseball play baseball." But something is seriously amiss. Dr. Charlotte notices at her hospital that "bachelors arrive sick and frightened. They leave, weeks later, unenlightened." Then Whizzer contracts an unnamed virus, "something so bad that words have lost their meaning."

Jason, in a decision reflecting the maturity a bar mitzvah symbolizes, decides to hold the ceremony in Whizzer's hospital room. And Marvin, also growing, comforts Whizzer when the dying man asks him if he regrets their relationship: "I'd do it again. I'd like to believe that I'd do it again."

So by musical's end, Marvin, in ways nobody could have foreseen, has his tight-knit family, one that loves its members unconditionally. The show's final benediction, a rite of passage for actors and viewers all, is sorrowful and yet somehow communally uplifting: "Lovers come and lovers go. Lovers live and die fortissimo. This is where we take a stand. Welcome to Falsettoland." Falsettos is about family and love and death as much as it is about manhood and sexuality and AIDS.

The production history of Falsettos makes it further evident that the musical has a commitment about it, a fellow-feeling, a pull that's more than a tug. The national touring company preserves much of this deep-seated connection in its casting. Stephen Bogardus, as Whizzer, performs a part he originated at the beginning of the musical cycle (at one point he played Marvin in In Trousers). Heather MacRae, as Dr. Charlotte, plays the character she featured for the New York Falsettoland as well as for last year's Falsettos, and Barbara Walsh reprises her Tony-nominated performance as Trina.

These actors' roles have been part of their lives for years and years; their lives have been part of their roles for years and years. This show elicits involvement and dedication.

Beyond the normal range of voice: that's what "falsetto" means. And these characters are outside the normal range, though a cure for AIDS and a redefinition of family would of course rectify things. In the meantime, Falsettos sings. Oh, does it sing.


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